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Unregulated chemicals contaminating water near air base

A firefighter uses a rapid intervention vehicle to respond to an aircraft fire during training December 7, 2016, at Luke Air Force Base. This training was performed by firefighters from the 56th Civil Engineer Squadron and Gila Bend Fire Department. PHOTO BY SENIOR AIRMAN JAMES HENSLEY/U.S. AIR FORCE

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is warning that contaminated water around Luke Air Force Base is linked to toxic foam used to put out fires and urging fire fighters to stop using the foam.  

The agency sent a letter to first responders in October and another letter to industry folks on March 25 recommending they stop the use of Aqueous Film Forming Foam – or AFFF – which contains toxic chemicals known as “forever chemicals.” The chemicals have been linked to higher risks of cancer and other diseases like developmental issues in fetuses and infants. One study also found a link between the chemicals and more severe cases of Covid. 

Those chemicals, most commonly known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in the drinking water surrounding Luke AFB, but not limited to just that area.  

ADEQ Director Misael Cabrera said Aqueous Film Forming Foam is not used solely at air force bases, but is something everyday firefighters use to extinguish or prevent fires.  

It then seeps into the groundwater — where in Arizona, groundwater is protected for use as drinking water, thereby affecting more than just one area.  

And these toxic chemicalswhich are manmade, can also be found in everyday products like nonstick cookware, stain-resistant coatings used on carpets, and water-resistant clothing, among others.  

adeq-director-misael-cabrera-1

Misael Cabrera

The department is conducting ongoing testing to determine where contaminated levels are higher than the recommended figures from the Environmental Protection Agency. It wasn’t until 2016 when the EPA determined the dangers of high levels of PFAS in the water, which preliminarily put at 70 parts per trillion, which Cabrera describes as roughly one droplet inside 18 million gallons of water.  

It’s a small amount, Cabrera said, and more research is being done to figure out how detrimental they can be to living beings – including humans and animals.  

Right now, though, the EPA determines 70 ppt is considered too high and toxic.  

Luke Air Force Base is now recommending people in the area that are affected only use bottled water for drinking and cooking — and took action to ensure people don’t consume the contaminated water.  

But because the chemicals aren’t regulated, nothing can be done at this point unless legislation is passed or the federal government puts a stop to it altogether, Cabrera said. A spokeswoman for Cabrera later said ADEQ will not request future legislation and will instead rely on federal standards set by the EPA. 

It’s also unclear how high above 70 parts per trillion water in the area is, because there is nothing that requires Luke AFB or the government to release that information publicly.  

The letter ADEQ sent on March 25 was to educate about the risks of the toxic foam and said it’s important to understand and mitigate the potential risks. Cabrera also sent out letters to 10 water suppliers and Luke Air Force Base in March requesting that they work with the department to figure out if water is contaminated.  

Cabrera wrote that he and the department identified 10 public water systems within a four-mile radius of Luke AFB that provide drinking water to more than 50,000 people and which could potentially be impacted by PFAS.  

Those systems are: Valley Utilities Water CO Glendale, Adaman Mutual Water CO, Hacienda Del Sol MHP, Western Hill Baptist Church, Liberty Water – LPSCO, Olive Avenue HOA, City of Glendale, City of Goodyear, EPCOR Agua Fria and Tierra Buena Water Company.  

The letter to Luke AFB was to set up a meeting “to discuss this request and to put a process in place to ensure appropriate data [is] shared timely.” The letter was sent on March 9 and as of this writing, Luke had not replied. When communities around the Air Force base — about 20 miles west of Phoenix — had to result to bottled water it got the attention of the Arizona Corporation Commission. 

The commission took notice of the contaminated water around Luke Air Force Base and opened a docket, and held a town hall March 25 to get to the bottom of what is happening. Commissioner Anna Tovar, who said she found out about this watching the local news, is leading the effort and said she was originally told there would be a fix by April, but now said it could take another couple of months – and further solutions could take up to two years.  

Tovar said Arizona is currently following the EPA estimate of 70 ppt, though the EPA is doing further research over the next two years to determine if that level is appropriate.  

California passed its own law that puts the cap at 10 parts per trillion, she said. 

Anna Tovar

Anna Tovar

“But any test that the Air Force does they do not share it,” Tovar said. 

The contaminated water isn’t just limited to areas around Luke AFB, either. 

Cabrera said areas like Tucson, Marana, Tempe and others have been affected in the past from the firefighting chemicals contaminating the water supply. And when it’s reported of potential toxicity in the water, it’s up to those water utilities to alert customers. He said ADEQ regulates about 1,500 drinking water systems in the state, compared to about 350-400 regulated by the Corporation Commission.  

“The first thing that we do is we get the public water system an opportunity to inform their customers. If they don’t, we have a backup process where we inform their customers for them,” he said, which is typically done via a press release.  

Step two is to make sure customers have access to healthy drinking water. Bottled water in the case of Luke AFB, or set up a distribution between well water connected to a clean source, which Cabrera said happened between Tucson and the help of the Department of Defense.  

But with how small the EPA level is currently set at, it doesn’t take much to potentially harm the immune system and increase the risk for some cancers or more severe cases of Covid.  

Philippe Grandjean, an adjunct environmental health professor at Harvard University, found that higher levels of the PFAS in the blood are associated with increased severity of Covid infections. 

The study found that patients with higher levels of the chemicals, which can affect the lungs, were about twice as likely as other Covid patients to develop severe symptoms, and also more likely to end up in the ICU or dying. Scientists are now worried about how PFAS can potentially diminish the effects of a Covid vaccine.  

Tovar said at least two people have reached out to her office concerned they may have had cancer or other health problems in the past that could be linked to the contaminated water supply, but it’s tough to find a direct link.  

“I definitely feel that we are at the tip of the iceberg and there’s so much more that we can’t see … that terrifies me because these are people’s lives at stake. People in families that have served the military that potentially right now could be sick from this toxin and not know it and thinking it’s something else,” Tovar said.  

That solution, she said, includes communicating with everybody involved and accountability.  

“Because right now they’re doing their research, but they haven’t actually come out to say that, ‘Yes, this is our fault,’” Tovar said. 

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